The Epic 30 Seconds: How Michelle Obama Stole the Show

Want to make the speech of a lifetime? Watch Michelle Obama. She proves all it takes is 30 seconds, 5 principles, one small story and people around the country will have tears in their eyes. I should warn you, this is NOT a political post. With that out of the way, Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention is one for the ages. The word online is the FLOTUS #nailedit.

I feel I should clarify. It wasn’t her entire speech that had the nation verklempt—but rather the few brilliant seconds between 1:07 and 1:37. Michelle Obama said 1,561 words during her time on that extremely important stage. But it was the 100 or so words between 1:07 and 1:37 that set the internet on fire. Because in those 100 words, she told an actual story.

In those 100 words, she told a story.

I spend much of my time educating people about the power of strategic storytelling. Some get it right away, others simply smile and nod. If the First Lady’s speech can teach us anything, regardless of which party or candidate you prefer, it’s the power one simple, well-told story can have.

The First Lady’s story exhibited a few of the most critical (and nuanced) elements of great storytelling. Here is the breakdown:

  1. The epic lead in. One of the questions I get asked most often is: How do I start? It’s true; one of the most difficult things about using storytelling effectively is actually starting the story. Take a lesson from the First Lady. “I will never forget that winter morning…” Simple. Flawless. Those seven words signaled your story-hungry brain that it was about to get something good. “You’re going to want to listen to this,” she said. “I’m about to tell you a story,” she said. “You are going to love this part,” she said. (And with those simple seven words, her speech-writer said, “This speech is going so viral…”). One of the best ways to transition from information to the actual story is to simply say, “I’ll never forget the day…” and then tell the story of the day.

    One of the best ways to transition from information to the actual story is to simply say, “I’ll never forget the day…”

  2. Vivid details. It was subtle, but the mention of ‘winter’ was a powerful one. Could you feel the cold? See the snowy streets? The gray sky? By including this single detail and the several others that followed, Michelle Obama got our brains working, creating the images to match her words. She engaged us in the magical co-creative process that is storytelling. In doing so, the story will stick with us longer—which is a critical strategic play I’ll discuss more in a minute.
  3. Choosing a universal moment. If you are a parent, sending your kid to school for the first time is a moment filled with emotion; a moment likely burned into your memory. Whether you put them on a bus or drove them there yourself, you likely watched your children’s “little faces” and saw your life flash before your eyes. Don’t have kids? No worries. You no doubt remember the first time you set off for something new and can match the emotion. In either case, by choosing a moment so many people can relate to, Michelle Obama put everyone on the same page and in the same emotional place. She commanded the room and the country.
  4. Story as the Scaffolding. This is the strategic play I mentioned earlier. After those early, brilliant 100 words, the rest of the First Lady’s speech was grounded in and supported by that 30 second story. Every time she mentioned “children” or “kids” or “boys and girls” (which she did often), she redirected us back to that emotional place. She sent us back to the story we all shared just minutes before. She was reconnecting us to a real moment—two little girls, faces pressed against the window.
  5. Offering a directive. At 13:02 Michelle Obama stuck the story-landing with this single line: “As my daughters prepare to set out into the world…” That’s it. After spending 12 minutes away from the story, suddenly we’re right back into it. But this time, they are not little girls—and neither are we. We’re not helpless in the back of an SUV, we can do something. The First Lady used this one line to leverage our emotions from the opening story and encourage the listeners to action.

Use a line from the story to leverage emotion and encourage action.

These five principles alone poised Michelle Obama for a 5 star speech at a critical time. Was the speech perfect from a storytelling standpoint? Absolutely not. In fact, aside from those 30 seconds and handful of other glimmering moments, the speech was not unlike any other political speech we hear on any other day. However, the excellent execution of those 100 words of story was all she needed.

And it’s all you need. Want to make the speech of a lifetime? All it takes is 30 seconds, 5 principles, one small story and people around the country will have tears in their eyes.